Let’s Make a Deal

Sometimes the big picture is more important than the details. That’s the case with the COVID relief package working its way through Congress right now.

President Biden’s plan would cost $1.9 trillion. Ten Republican senators have offered a plan — with few public details at this point — costing around $600 billion. That’s a canyon of a gap, but let’s face it, nobody knows what the “right” number is. Maybe almost two trillion is too much, maybe a third of that is too little. As the Republican leader in the 1960’s Everett Dirksen, used to say, “A billion here. A billion there. Pretty soon you’re talking about a lot of money.”

So, why not just split the difference at around $1.2 trillion, pass the bill with bi-partisan support and get the relief out to the country as soon as possible?

One thing the Republicans have right is that the direct cash relief checks in the Biden plan aren’t targeted well. Under the president’s proposal, families earning up to $300,000 could get the money. The Republicans propose capping that at $100,000 instead. Makes sense to me.

Is Mitt Romney sincere about negotiating on the COVID relief bill?

But what a bi-partisan deal could accomplish for the long run is a lot more important than any specifics of it. Coming to an agreement would:

Send a signal that our pluralistic democracy can function again. Our institutions are battered after four years of Donald Trump. They need repair and this would go a long way toward beginning that project.

Strengthen what’s left of the traditional Republican Party. The leaders of the party have already thrown in the towel to Donald Trump, but if fully one-fifth of Republican senators show that they can work with Biden, that could be a significant start in fighting back against the apparent capitulation to right-wing populism.

Strengthen Biden vis a vis his left. If Biden can show that he’s got a substantial group of Republicans that he can work with, it means that he doesn’t necessarily need every Democratic vote on every issue. He can afford to let the left go when they demand things that go too far, whether that’s on immigration, infrastructure, climate or any number of issues that Biden wants to tackle.

Cynics will point out that these same Republicans weren’t so worried about restraining spending and deficits when some of them were voting for Trump’s trillion dollar tax cut. Of course, they’re right. I’m shocked to discover hypocrisy in politics.

Cynics may further point out that this offer may be just a game, a way of calling Biden on his promise of unity and making him look bad when he rejects a deal they knew all along he could never stomach. They may also be right about this, but I’m not so sure. The presence of Mitt Romney in the group of ten makes me think that this may be just an opening offer for negotiation. And it’s interesting that $600 billion is almost exactly a third of Biden’s amount. Makes it easy to find a middle at $1.2 trillion.

The Democrats are poised to move ahead without any Republican votes and they may be able to do that if they use budget reconciliation. But all they need is one defection — say, Joe Manchin of West Virginia — and they’ll need at least one Republican vote. Manchin is actually in an interesting position because he alone could force Democrats and Republicans to work together just by threatening to vote against the Biden package.

The overall numbers for the package just aren’t all that important — a billion here, a billion there — but by coming to a deal with the Republicans (assuming the offer is sincere) Biden would have a lot more to gain than just a COVID bill. He could start to rebuild the nation.

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